Apr. 8—Cumberland County reported 727 suspected child abuse cases in 2020, impacting 1,818 children.
It's an increase of 53 cases and 131 children from 2019, though the global pandemic has resulted in lower reports statewide.
"That shows me that people know what to look for," said Denise Melton, director of the House of Hope. "We've got people doing their job, or it wouldn't be on the stats."
A report by Tennessee Lookout found the number of calls to the state's child abuse hotline fell by a third in March 2020, and the trend persisted throughout 2020.
This toll-free number — 1-877-237-0004 — allows anyone to report suspected child abuse or neglect 24/7, 365 days a year. The people taking the calls are trained to screen these reports, asking for important information. Callers don't need to know all the answers, but share what they can with the operator who can refer the case to the Department of Children's Services or law enforcement.
From March 2019 to February 2020, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services received 118,145 calls to the child abuse hotline, with 76,153 calls resulting in an investigation. From March 2020 to February 2021, the hotline received 100,192 calls, with 58,352 resulting in an investigation.
In Cumberland County, there were 155 cases referred to the Child Protective Services Investigative Team, CPIT. This group includes law enforcement, child advocacy center staff, caseworkers with the Department of Children's Services and Caroline Knight, assistant district attorney for the 13th Judicial District.
"The success of CPIT turns on communication," Knight explained. The group meets regularly. They can convene immediately in cases of a child death or near death, a child with a serious injury, a contemporaneous disclosure of child sex abuse, or disclosure of child sex or physical abuse with the alleged perpetrator in the home.
Child abuse investigations fall into sexual abuse, drug-exposed child, drug-exposed infant, physical abuse, lack of supervision, medical neglect, nutritional neglect, child death, and psychological harm.
In 2020, Cumberland County had 115 reports of sexual abuse. Of those, 16 were substantiated, 87 determined unfounded, seven investigations were unable to be completed and five were child sex behaviors.
Knight explained the unable-to-be-completed investigations could involve a child disclosing abuse that occurred elsewhere or they were too young to provide information necessary to complete an investigation.
Sex behaviors involves children younger than 13 who may be prior victims of sexual abuse and are displaying sexual behaviors and are in need of intervention.
"Because of their age, there is a hesitancy to substantiate the case," Knight said.
There were 22 substantiated cases of drug-exposed children, seven cases of physical abuse, and four cases of lack of supervision. In these cases, the risk of harm to the child was determined to be "imminent," Knight explained.
Cumberland County also had one report of a child death, reported Dec. 31, 2020. That case remains under investigation awaiting the results of an autopsy, Knight told the Chronicle. It is not uncommon to wait several months for the autopsy report, she said.
Tennessee law guides the prosecution of child abuse in the court system. The law states anyone who "knowingly, other than by accidental means, treats a child under 18 years of age in such a manner as to inflict injury commits a Class A misdemeanor." If the victim is 8 or younger, the crime becomes a Class D felony. The law further states that anyone who "knowingly abuses or neglects a child ... so as to adversely affect the child's health and welfare" commits a misdemeanor if the child is younger than 18 or a Class E felony if 8 years old or younger.
The state's aggravated child abuse and aggravated child neglect or endangerment law is called "Haley's Law." These are more serious crimes than child abuse, child neglect and endangerment and can be filed when a child suffers serious bodily injury, a deadly weapon is used; the abuse, neglect or endangerment was especially heinous or cruel; or resulted from knowingly exposing a child to the manufacture of methamphetamine. These crimes are considered Class B felonies unless the child is 8 years old or younger, in which case it is a Class A felony.
Knight thinks the pandemic resulted in fewer reports of child abuse in 2020 statewide.
"The efficacy of this system really relies on the other people that come into contact with children on a regular basis to report red flags they may be observing," Knight said. "Typically those are teachers and other school personnel, counselors, medical personnel, clergy, coaches, extracurricular activities that kids participate on a regular basis. Those are the trusted entities that a child who is not safe at home can report to. When you have a shut down, those people are not able to observe these children who are in need and at risk.
"It's been a time of great loss, and among the most affected people are the children who are not safe at home and had nowhere safe they could go."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found reports of child abuse by pediatricians, teachers and others dropped 20% to 70% nationally.
Melton said advocates worried about the lock downs and school closures.
"Just because everybody is in their home doesn't mean they're safe," she said.
And with 132 more children reported to the state hotline last year, Melton wonders — how many were not reported?
Child abuse includes physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. According to the CDC, the youngest children are the most at risk for abuse.
The impacts of child abuse and neglect last far longer than any bruises or injuries. Researchers have linked childhood abuse to physical, psychological and behavioral consequences that can last a lifetime. Abuse can stunt brain development in children, increase risk for chronic health conditions, lead to psychological and behavioral health issues, increase risk-taking behaviors, and contribute to behavioral issues and substance use.
Next week: Child sex abuse investigations make up the bulk of reports in 13th Judicial District. Learn the warning signs to look for.
Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at email@example.com.